When people come together and form organisations with a common purpose, leaders emerge, goals are defined, plans made, and work delegated. Once underway the managers emerge to maintain focus, solve problems, and defend against the undoing of work and purpose. Organisations also develop a life-like quality in that they first seek to defend their lives, and then seek to thrive. So once you have an organisation in existence the leaders and managers who have the power of the organisation automatically shift their focus to sustaining and growing the organisation.
While we all see organisations at work and may work in them, the fact that the leadership and high level management of these groups only requires a select few means that it is unlikely that many of us in a modern society will truly participate and see how power works. So the challenge of organisational power is how do you control it when power is experienced and hence understood by a few, held at any point in time by an even smaller few, and the larger group has little understanding or engagement in the management of the power of the organisations that impact their lives?
Nations are simply organisations; groups of people operating as an organisation within the boundaries of their nation. As with other organisations, not all nations share the same values, however democratic nations believe that the individual is free to live their life free from the control of the state. However as power in organisations is concentrated, and its machinations a mystery, democratic nations have to solve the problem of how to manage the few in power who will not always get it right and tend to err outside their mandate as they seek to thrive within their purpose.
Democracies achieve this control by ensuring that those in power live within open – or transparent – review processes. In a democracy all review processes should ultimately link to a transparent legal and legislative process. Transparency is the tool that democracies use to ensure that the rights of the individual are not taken by the decisions of the powerful few.
An uncomfortable aspect of transparency is that it is adversarial in nature – a fight. If someone wants to do something and someone in a position of review argues against it, two adversaries are joined. It follows therefore that effective democracy is about effective fighting. That is borne out in the language we use; we go to the courts to fight, lobbyists fight, our lawmakers fight, the executive branch fights with the legislative branch, we fight campaigns, we fight, fight, fight. So if we are in a democracy we are joined in a fight, and if we walk away from fighting, we walk away from democracy.
To me it seems inevitable that those in power will lose their perspective and end up working against the freedoms of the individual. Consider someone in a critically important management role in a government security organisation. They are important people, well educated, well meaning, driven, and with a detailed understanding of the workings of their organisation and the challenges that they face. People in these roles see things that we can never understand, probably things that we can never even contemplate. Who knows the horrors, real or imagined, that go across these people’s desks every day as they understand the world in which they work, and make their plans. And just like us they will create management plans, have off-sites, team meetings, dream about what can be done, struggle to do what should be done, fixing up the things that should not have been done. Just another day at the office except that a normal day deals with things like national security policy. So how can these people have a normal view of anything and keep a balanced perspective? They can’t always and so they need processes of review to help them keep their perspective.
But if the process of review is a fight, they are going to fight against that review. Every now and then they will win fights they should not win, and sometimes circumstances gives them a free win. Given enough of these wins the review process gets weakened to the point of being ineffective. I believe that this is what we are seeing as the NSA files are slowly being leaked. We are seeing how we have been through a period where those in power who have lost their perspective have been able to operate without a fight. And with no fight joined the review processes have been weakened to the point where they have no fight left in them. And so our democracy has been weakened.
The bitter irony in all of this is that the terrorists who try to undermine our freedoms through terror can actually succeed in undermining our freedoms by our responses invoked by that terror. We are free, we get attacked, we give up our freedoms so that we don’t get attacked. The result is that we are less free because of terrorism.
This can be seen in government involvement in the monitoring of the public internet. The democratic governments who have been revealed to be building this monitoring infrastructure argue that they are doing it for the defense of the democracy. But what is the difference between a democratic nation that controls communications networks, corporation’s use of customer information, information flows between and from citizens, and an autocratic one that does the same? None, except that the democratic government was supposed to do this work transparently inside the law. But if there was transparency about the plan before it went to execution would they have even won the fight to implement them? Probably not.
So while the erosion of our freedoms may have manifested themselves in errant government practices around internet communications networks and the corporations offering services over this network, the problem is not the emergence of a new technology called the internet. The problem is an erosion of the old processes of transparency and our willingness to join the fight to ensure transparency.
The internet is a red herring in our fight for democracy. If we fight for transparency, and fight for our democracy, what happens on connections over the internet will look after themselves.